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We'll Always Have Paris
The dank, dirty smell of the metro receded and bright daylight could be seen cascading over the steps as I made my way up from the terminal. My vision came into focus and there- so close I could squint my eyes and pretend to squish it between my thumb and forefinger- was l’Arc de Triomphe. The sight of the monument, which had so long existed in my life only as a three-inch tall statue in my room, elicited an involuntary gasp. It was this exact moment that I realized I was in France.
One might have thought that the eleven-hour plane ride would tip me off that I was no longer in America, but for me, the plane seemed only to be the vessel on which I had embarked into a very long dream. It was too hard to comprehend the fact that I was truly in the place I had envisioned for years. In ways, the trip passed much like a dream- the fantastic scenery, the incomprehensible murmuring of slang-riddled, rapid-fire French all around me, the way we seemed to move constantly, without any sense of time. My first night in Paris, I walked along the Champs-Elysees in a daze, attempting to soak up every inch of French culture, my eyes darting around always at least ten feet ahead of my jet-lagged body. It was all so impossibly… foreign. The people were stunning. It seemed as though I had had walked onto a citywide fashion shoot or some sort of VIP party- only the most beautiful and best dressed allowed. Yet, in a funny “where’s Waldo” sort of game, tourists could be spotted within the crowds, destroying the illusion of perfection.
The buildings along the Champs-Elysees towered above us several stories high and extended as far as the eye could see in symmetrical rows of tan stone and windows, interrupted only by lacy fenced balconies and sculptural pieces. My tour group wandered down the street, not even daring to enter the stores whose windows bragged of Louis Vuitton and Prada. While our knowledge of the conversion rate between the US dollar and the Euro was shaky, it was well understood that 4,875 Euros was out of our price range.
Our walk eventually brought us to the Place de la Concord where we stumbled around, exhausted, yet still snapping shots wildly of the obelisk, fountain and statues. Though it was still light out, the clock told us 22:15 when my two roommates and I arrived back in our tiny hotel room on the outskirts of Paris. We got a few deep hours of sleep before our morning wake-up call told us to come down to the lobby for croissants and crepes. The morning was spent on a bus tour ride that was akin to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Despite the hundreds of tiny vehicles crowding the even tinier streets, our gigantic bus zoomed past everything at an alarming speed. Though I had hoped to take pictures, I quickly gave up, finding this task to be impossible between the glare of the windows, the speed at which we moved and the constant obstacles posed by trees, lamplights and people. We finally stopped at L’Hotel national des Invalides so that we could take pictures of the large golden dome and our bus driver could have a characteristically French cigarette break. The ride continued until lunch, where I paid close to ten dollars for about 6 ounces of Evian water and had the best salad I’ve ever eaten.
Finally, it was time to visit Versailles. As we made our way to the golden gates, we were swarmed by vendors aggressively pushing touristy trinkets. Once we had made it beyond them, we were transported into another time and world completely. We ascended a grand marble staircase into a heaven, in its own sense, where everything seemed to possess an angelic glow. Everywhere you looked something more fantastic caught your eye, until your head was spinning with images of gold moldings, marble busts, rich fabrics and sparkling chandeliers. To think of all the work put into the creation of this magical place and that people had actually live there, was beyond comprehension. After the tour we traipsed through the royal gardens, up and down rows of neatly trimmed green speckled with colorful flowers. From time to time we stopped to admire the pristine, white statues and giant fountains, still reveling in the idea that this had been someone’s backyard.
Despite tired feet from endless walking, we continued on for an afternoon of shopping on the quaint streets of Paris, followed by a night ride on the Bateaux Mouche along the Seine River. Our tour guide, an enthusiastic young man, gave the hour-long speech in three languages, which would have been impressive enough, but when I complimented him on this feat, he informed me he was fluent in or learning at least five others. As he described our surroundings, I happily sat back and observed the French world. We passed countless beautiful old buildings and churches, and even a fashion shoot. The ride came to an end with the most picturesque image of France- the glittering Eiffel Tour lit up at night. Smiling, but exhausted, we rode the metro back to our hotel, serenaded on the way by a friendly guitarist. It seemed our whole trip had a soundtrack from accordion-players on the streets, to cellists in the metro station, to flutists in the Papacy, to pianists in the Centre Pompidou.
From one dreamland to the next, our next stop brought us to the Louvre. My excitement for this particular adventure had grown my whole life reaching exponential heights after taking an Art History course at school. Though I understood the skill conveyed in paintings like the Mona Lisa and or The Lacemaker, it was the expansive collection of Ancient Grecian sculptures that caught my attention. From the giant work of Michelangelo, to the tiny figurines of unknown artistry, I was awed by the attention to detail and fact that they had survived so long. After much too short a length of time, our group left the museum, onto a more trivial pursuit: shopping. In a way, trying to shop at the Galerie de Lafayette was much like trying to shop in the Louvre. The clothes were masterpieces, artfully displayed and virtually priceless. I was, however, able to afford a delicious, flower-shaped gelato, which I ate while admiring the stunning stained glass dome of the mall.
Another few days were spent in the City of Lights, before taking the TGV (a train that travels at over 200 miles per hour) south. Our first Southern trip was to the Avignon Papacy, where I fell in love. Grayish stonewalls rose up around the town, guarding the cobble-stoned streets and faded, pastel-colored homes. A pair of young men played old-fashioned flutes in the center square and a peaceful quiet blanketed the town like a long-settled layer of dust. Shutters hung off the buildings at odd angles, but the antiquated effect was contrasted by the bursts of colorful flowers in every window box. Though I found the tour of the Papacy deeply interesting, it was the free time spent trying escargots at a café and hearing the natives converse in their thick southern dialect which I loved the most.
The following day we experienced a new sort of adventure- grocery shopping in a foreign language. After navigating the huge store in search of lunch, I emerged with very simple, yet very French items: a baguette, assorted soft cheeses and fruit. We had our picnic on the edge of the river that runs beneath the Pont du Gard, where we spent a few hours hiking. This trip was followed a visit to the Arena of Nimes, a Roman amphitheater, which was breathtaking in it’s size and construction. After running up and down it’s many steps, we were all in need of a gelato break, so we headed to Les Jardins de la Fontaine- a nearby park, which was converted from public Roman baths.
The next day we traveled farther south and along the coast, stopping in Provence, Nice and Cannes. As the Mediterranean Sea came into view from my seat on the bus I ached to jump off and dive in. The water was two shades of stunning blue, changing from light to dark in a severe straight line. Finally the bus doors opened and we could dip our toes in the cool water. A boat took us around the nearby inlets and we watched the locals parasail for hours. We left the beach and went on to Monaco, where we were dazzled by the wealth of the people and the pomp and circumstance about the local royalty. That night we watched the sunset on the beach, falling down on a different side of the world, before heading back to our hotel. We fell asleep lulled by the sound of cicadas and the smell of lavender, dreaming visions Roman emperors and princesses and the ocean.
As with all dreams, we had to wake up eventually. Our French voyage came to an end with many tears and even more croissants. While I long to go back, I comforted by the words of a man who had himself lived the dream, knowing that “We’ll always have Paris.”